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Scientists Say DFO's Library Closure Defence Doesn't Add Up

Minister Shea fails to convince researchers trove of information is preserved.

Andrew Nikiforuk 8 Jan

Calgary resident Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous articles published in The Tyee here.

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DFO Minister Gail Shea: Critics of science library closures spreading "serious misinformation."

After refusing to answer Tyee questions about the dismantling of seven DFO libraries nearly three weeks ago, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Gail Shea issued a press release Tuesday claiming to cite "facts" countering "serious misinformation."

The release, from DFO spokespersons Sophie Doucet and Frank Stanek, says the consolidations of nine libraries into two will save taxpayers money and that citizens were hardly using the libraries anyway.

The DFO website has for months stated contents of the closing libraries are being digitized and made more accessible as a result, but in December scientists who have used the libraries described to The Tyee a process of dismantling the libraries that is haphazard and have expressed doubts that vital contents will be recorded electronically.

A DFO memo marked "SECRET" that surfaced in December described the consolidation as a cost-cutting measure saving less than half a million dollars a year, and said the main activity involved was "culling" material to make it fit into the two remaining libraries.

Today's DFO release offers no proof of extensive digitization, nor does it include a cost-benefit analysis on the closures.

Four veteran scientists contacted by The Tyee Tuesday said the press release omitted the real facts. One said it amounted to "more smoke being blown in Canadians' eyes."

Here's how they responded to the government press release's three main points defending the closing of the science libraries and the way it is being done:

1. 'Value for taxpayers' who rarely use the libraries?

The DFO press release claimed: "The decision to consolidate our network of libraries was based on value for taxpayers. The primary users of DFO libraries, over 86 per cent, are employees of the department. An average of only five to 12 people who work outside of DFO visited our eleven libraries each year. It is not fair to taxpayers to make them pay for libraries that so few people actually used."

Jeffrey Hutchings, Canada Research Chair in Marine Conservation & Biodiversity at Dalhousie University, slammed the DFO's argument, telling The Tyee:

"This view articulates the position that taxpayers gain negligible value from libraries that are not regularly used by the public, even when those libraries support the work of government scientists and, by extension, all individuals whose efforts assist government in the implementation of federal legislation and policy.

"A logical extension of this argument proffered by DFO spokespersons is that it would not be fair to make taxpayers pay for the libraries and associated resources of the Supreme Court of Canada, the Bank of Canada, or even the Library of Parliament because 'so few people actually used' the libraries in question."

Hutchings' colleague at Dalhousie, marine scientist Peter Wells, also scoffed at the DFO's reasoning, saying "it ignores the fact that the libraries are the hearts of research institutes and used primarily by the research staff. They were never intended to be used extensively by the public. However, some were…but the fact remains -- the libraries were established to aid ongoing research at the DFO labs. Taxpayers would expect such use in order to acquire the benefits of current research of excellence."

A Winnipeg scientist with 30 years of field experience, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed the DFO's claims "make no sense. If the majority of users are DFO staff, then maintain the libraries for them. Outside users don't cost any more. Since when are specialized libraries a consideration of taxpayers? At any rate, I would dispute the data on low outside use for the Freshwater Institute Library. It was widely used. How were the data on use collected? Official requests to librarians? If so, what about the informal visits, which probably weren't logged?"

2. Collections adequately digitized or not?

DFO spokespersons claimed: "Users of these libraries clearly prefer to access its information digitally, which the Department of Fisheries and Oceans can accommodate while also saving taxpayers money. In 2011, for example, over 95 per cent of the total documents provided to users were provided digitally through self-service or library-staff virtually assisted service."

Wells called it "a myth" that science library users "clearly prefer" materials in digital form. "Obviously access to digitized materials has great benefit for research and scholarship. But the primary users, the scientists and technicians at the labs, often prefer hard copies as they are easier to use, and in fact often not available digitally." But, said Wells, "a lot of the (non-digitized) material sent from the closed libraries to the core libraries in Dartmouth, NS, and Sidney, B.C., is boxed, likely to be stored in other locations, and hence quite inaccessible in any practical way by users."

David Schindler, one of Canada's most respected aquatic scientists, also found no reassurance in the press release, even if the claims of extensive digitization of the seven libraries' holdings might eventually be demonstrated to be true.

"Electronic access is no substitute for access to hard copies. I find it rather like trying to look at a room through a keyhole. I would not want to be an aquatic scholar in Winnipeg these days. Judging by the reaction of DFO scientists in Winnipeg, they feel the same way. How can a minister with no experience as a working scientist possibly judge this?"

The anonymous Winnipeg scientist told The Tyee that the DFO's argument was "specious" because "early literature and grey literature would not be available digitally, and represent important repositories of scientific information. Moreover, browsing through the stacks, a valuable activity in collecting data, is no longer possible."

3. How was the decision made about what to keep or lose?

It's still not clear how much "early" and "grey" literature gathered at taxpayers' expense has been preserved, how much was digitized, and who was in charge of deciding what to digitize and what to lose. The fact that collections, carefully accumulated over time, apparently were being destroyed, caused some scientists to liken the process to "book burning" and "libricide."

DFO spokespersons stated in Tuesday's press release that: "Duplicate materials, including books, from the libraries being consolidated were offered to other libraries and third parties if they wanted them. They were also offered to the DFO staff on site at the library, then offered to the general public, and finally were recycled in a 'green' fashion if there were no takers. It is absolutely false to insinuate that any books were burnt."

But the Winnipeg scientist echoed some peers in noting: "Not sure how the limited staff that packed up the Freshwater Institute Library was able to check every publication to determine it was a 'duplicate'. Was a record kept of what the public took? If not, then material paid for by the taxpayer, an important consideration to Minister Shea, wound up in private hands."

DFO Spokespersons emphasized: "All materials for which DFO has copyright will be preserved by the department."

But scientist Jeffrey Hutchings worried: "Can one then logically assume that materials for which DFO does not have copyright, irrespective of their historic value to Canadians or to fisheries science, will not be preserved?"

The scientists interviewed by The Tyee Tuesday said the DFO spokespersons' reassurance that no books were "burnt" missed the point that destruction of library materials by any means gave them grave concern. As one said: "'Book burning' was used in a metaphorical sense. For the minister to take the term at face value is laughable."

Another wondered whether it mattered if discarded materials were dumped in a landfill rather than set ablaze.

Demands to reveal decisions, process

The DFO press release wrapped up by saying: "Our Government is proud to stand up for taxpayers while retaining our important scientific knowledge."

But Hutchings was unmoved, pointing out that the DFO employees who crafted the press release "are not elected officials. They are not accountable to Canadians." And the anonymous Winnipeg scientist concluded, "The last line may appeal to the Conservative base, but is an oxymoron."

While Tuesday's DFO press release said it was written to counter "serious misinformation" about why and how the science libraries were being closed, scientist Wells charged that the DFO, rather than its critics, could be accused of misleading the public.

"If they are going to point fingers and make statements about what they consider to be misinformation, they should look internally first and closely examine what they are saying about the 'consolidation' of the libraries," Wells told The Tyee. "Those of us interviewed by the media on this important event/issue have been giving honest and factual viewpoints based on whole careers of experience, and as active users of the marine and aquatic libraries. We simply want the truth to come out about the damage being done by this 'library consolidation'…The DFO website on this issue is full of misleading statements and untruths."

As far as Wells is concerned, "All in all, the collections across the country were reduced haphazardly, without a clear plan and time to implement it. I do not blame the working remaining librarians for this impossible situation, as they were simply following orders from 'above.' The fact remains -- irreplaceable collections critical to the functioning of the research institutes were purposively reduced and/or destroyed."

That causes Wells to conclude "the government does not value the DFO collections. If they did, they would not have initiated a poorly-thought-out reduction of the libraries, their staff, and their invaluable collections. The rationale of money to be saved has no defense, when one considers the cost of digitizing the remaining collections, the costs (real and intangible) of dismembering the existing libraries, and the costs to scientists' efficiency and morale. DFO has destroyed its network of respected and valued research libraries."

Wells added his voice to a growing chorus supporting the demand of former DFO minister Tom Siddon that an independent inquiry or assessment should be held to figure out whether the closed science libraries' content is being adequately preserved.  [Tyee]

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